Allelujah review: a community tries to save a hospital ward

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When a hospital ward dealing in elderly care is threatened with closure, the community tries to come to the rescue – here’s our review of Allelujah.

The premise of Allelujah, based on the Alan Bennett play, promises a heartfelt comedy drama about saving a hospital ward that provides care for the elderly. As ‘the Beth’ (as it’s colloquially called in the movie) is threatened with closure by a budget-cutting Tory government, the residents, staff and community gather together to raise funds and celebrate the long-serving Sister Gilpin (Jennifer Saunders). 

It’s a basic plot of a community saving a beloved institution that’s been seen before in the likes of Save The Cinema, and with Allelujah intending to staunchly defend what’s arguably the country’s favourite institution – the NHS – Richard Eyre’s film should win audiences over easily. ‘Should’ being the key word here. 

What you actually get with Allelujah is a film that barely focuses on the people involved in its plot or their efforts to save the hospital ward, and instead takes pleasure in commenting on the grim and unpleasant side of elderly care. 

The movie boasts an impressive cast full of national treasures, including Saunders, Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi. It’s just a shame that those playing the hospital’s elderly residents are confined to roles that amount to offensive stereotypes of old people. A lot of them have lost their marbles, or their hearing, or – as Allelujah loves to persistently comment on – control of their bladder and bowels. 

Of course, these are unpleasant realities that can affect people of a certain age, but the film’s insistence on focusing on the most grim parts of being elderly without much effort to flesh out these characters makes it really rather unpleasant. 

It’s not a very nice advert for the NHS when it’s presenting characters that have no dignity and very little quality of life. Some of the incontinence-related comments seem to be intended as jokes, but if you have even a shred of empathy it’s very hard to take them as such.

The characters of Allelujah singing and dancing.

The lack of developed characters has an unfortunate impact on the quality of the performances in Allelujah. Dame Judi Dench wanders around, seeming bewildered and overly timid half of the time. Derek Jacobi takes the opportunity to teach Dr Valentine (Bally Gill) some poetry, and really makes the most of it, but the rest of the time overperforms his lines in semi-shouty fashion.

One well-rounded resident is David Bradley’s Joe, but even he peppers his performance with melodrama – what his son Colin (Russell Tovey, playing a government consultant) aptly names a ‘pantomime cough’. 

While some focus is given to the filmmakers documenting the campaign to save the ward, the film mostly drifts between disjointed and soap-ish storylines. From Colin visiting his dad while simultaneously trying to shut down the Beth, to Sister Gilpin and Dr Valentine discussing the nature of the job over a late night takeaway. Speaking of Dr Valentine, he seems to be the only character who genuinely cares to get to know his patients, and Bally Gill brings a lovely sense of compassion to the role. He’s one of the few bright presences in the film.

Some good points are made about the dire situation the healthcare system is currently in – with workers overstretched and wards underfunded – but it never cohesively comes together to make any really meaningful social commentary. Certainly not anything that overcomes the unpleasantness of the constant incontinence jokes. 

As the day of Sister Gilpin’s celebration draws nearer, we’re hit with an unexpected twist. There are good surprises and bad surprises in life, and Allelujah’s twist ending is definitely the latter. It’s the kind of shift that completely changes the film’s tone and undercuts its messaging. It happens so abruptly, and you can’t help but question why the film ends on a note that undermines everything it’s trying to do. 

Allelujah ultimately ends in a covid ward, where Dr Valentine is now working, and Bally Gill’s incredible monologue set against the gruelling conditions of a pandemic-era hospital is a ray of light in an otherwise bleak film, even if it does feel like an advert for the NHS. This is the most effective part of the movie, but it still can’t salvage the deep unpleasantness that permeates the rest of it. The NHS deserves better. 

Allelujah is in UK cinemas on 17th March.

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